AGCI Insight

The adaptive mind: Fostering psychosocial resilience to climate change

March 20, 2023

Working to address the growing climate crisis is emotionally and spiritually demanding. So how do we sustain ourselves as we face this existential threat day in and day out? From January 31 to February 3, AGCI hosted a virtual workshop, The Adaptive Mind: Identifying the Psychosocial Skills & Capacities Needed to Navigate an Increasingly Difficult World. The workshop brought together participants from a dizzyingly diverse range of disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, public health, environmental justice, change leadership, organizational studies, cognitive science, mind-body-spirit practices and traditions, faith-based/spiritual leadership, future studies, social-ecological systems and sustainability science, education, and more. For four days, participants explored the skills, capacities, practices, and orientations people experiencing and working to respond to the growing climate crisis need to operate with resilience and make wise decisions involved in transformative societal change.

Recently I spoke with AGCI Affiliate Susanne Moser, lead organizer and facilitator of the Adaptive Mind workshop and founder of the Adaptive Mind Project, to discuss the workshop and how it transpired, the hallmarks and challenges inherent in the “adaptive mind” concept, and what comes next. Our discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Liz Carver: What was the genesis of this workshop and the Adaptive Mind project?

Susi Moser: I’ve been working in the adaptation field for probably 30 years now. And around 2015, a lot of my colleagues who work on the ground with communities took me aside at conferences and started asking me, How the hell do you deal with it? It was basically people experiencing emotional distress, burnout, and exhaustion from the ongoing work of looking at climate change and really taking in what it actually means — not just as a technical problem, but grappling with the profound impact it will have on our lives and on future generations. It’s an existential threat for all intents and purposes. You can totally distance yourself from that and think about it in terms of projections and numbers and that kind of technical language, or you can actually sit still for a minute and take that in. And then it hits you: OMG, what’s going to happen where we live, right? What have we done?

So a lot of people started to find it really difficult to keep going in their work given the day-to-day burdens of adaptation work: climate change is basically adding insult to the preexisting injuries from poverty and racism and all the underlying, concurrent, and you can argue, causally related issues that make it such a complex and overwhelming problem. People felt disheartened in terms of what they could actually do. After hearing that again and again, I started to think, well, we aren’t trained for these psychological challenges in engineering school or in ecology or in planning or whatever their disciplinary background is. We live in a culture that doesn’t support that you take care of yourself, that you draw good boundaries and do things in a more measured way. We’re in a culture that promotes burnout. And we work in a culture where – particularly in the technical and scientific professions – we are socialized to put our emotions outside of our job or else lose our credibility. So people are kind of left without any place to go, people have no skills for this, and people are suffering as a result.

My hunch was that this was going to be a growing problem and we needed to come up with something that supported and equipped people more effectively to deal with the psychosocial challenges that are coming.

LC: Who is the audience for the Adaptive Mind project?

SM: The audience is professionals who work on climate resilience, climate adaptation, day in and day out. And it’s since expanded a little bit. People are coming to us from anywhere climate change is already being experienced. So they’re teachers who have to teach this and basically tell their kids, you’ve got no future. Or it’s psychologists who are beginning to see the challenges among their clients, but counselors are not equipped. They may have the self care part down and know how to deal with trauma, but they don’t necessarily have the climate side. Ministers, spiritual leaders, journalists, community leaders, government and NGO staff, first responders, you name it. So it’s become a broader audience for us, but it is intended to build the capacities, the habits among people working on climate change, to help them navigate and cope with what’s coming, but also make use of this disruptive time in a constructive way and become change agents for a better future.

LC: And what’s your professional background?

SM: So I’m trained as a geographer, but I have spent much of my career working on communication of climate change, and adaptation. In both these areas, I was already really interested in the psychological aspects. I’m also really interested in science-practice and science-policy interactions. So I’ve been essentially living in that very space that I’m trying now to address through this project. I’ve lived in it in various roles, whether as an academic or part of an NGO or working as what we call a boundary spanner, trying to navigate that space between science and practice in my capacity as an independent researcher and consultant.

LC: Did you find yourself experiencing some of the same questions, concerns, worries?

SM: Oh absolutely. My own awareness of climate change goes back to the mid-1980s. I started to realize how big that issue is and how devastating that will be even back then. But for the longest time, I kept my own emotions very much under wraps, because I grew up in a scientific culture, and there just isn’t space for those. So I sort of made it a scientific topic of my research: I was interested in how do you communicate climate change in a way that doesn’t ignore people’s emotions or taps into motivations that get people to take actions on climate change. That was my first way of tending to the emotional side of climate change. Beyond that I tended to my own emotions in my private time, going through repeated rounds of emotional crisis around climate change, maybe attending a workshop here or there by Buddhist teacher, systems thinker, activist, and writer Joanna Macy (she called it “the work that reconnects”). Eventually I started to hear this need from my colleagues. And then I started to think, yeah, we need to develop something that addresses this growing need.

LC: And how did the workshop come about?

SM: When we originally conceived of [the Adaptive Mind] project, our idea was, let’s have a workshop and bring the best minds together to help us understand what is already known about adaptive mind kind of qualities. And once we discerned what part of that can be trained, we would develop trainings, we would go out and test them, we would revise as we go, and at the end of the project, we maybe would have a way of scaling it. Well, we never got funding of any substantive amount to go about it like that. And that’s a whole different story. Meanwhile, we got more and more requests from people who said, Can you help us? Can you help us? And so we ended up taking a leap of faith and saying, we already know a lot about this from our own personal work. Why don’t we pull together a training and refine it as we go? And so we started doing that. In the meantime, I have given 50-plus presentations on this project, and eventually got some attention from funders and we got a little bit of money. And with that money, we said, Well, we’ve already started to build a house; now let’s build the theoretical foundation underneath it.

“With the adaptive mind, we’re interested in the set of skills and capacities that allow an individual, in community, to deal with constant, traumatic, and transformative change.”
–Dr. Susi Moser

LC: So what are the hallmarks of the adaptive mind?

SM: Yeah, great question. It’s actually a good way to articulate not just what the adaptive mind is, but how we’ve been framing it until it got challenged during the workshop. Our working definition for a long time had been “the adaptive mind is a set of skills and capacities that enable an individual — embedded in institutions, community, and in networks — to respond with agility, resilience, resolve, and creativity to the challenges associated with three types of change that characterize the climate-changed world: constant, traumatic, and transformative change.”

With regard to constant change, there’s no longer this perceived stability that humans — maybe some of us more so than others — have lived in. The second aspect — traumatic change — is the experience of having one disaster after another, and all the pain and suffering that that will bring. And of course, for many long-marginalized groups of society, poor people, people of color, this is new trauma on top of chronic, old trauma. And, finally, the third aspect is transformative change, the need to make profound shifts in society if we are to survive and maybe even thrive in the future.

So with the adaptive mind, we’re interested in the set of skills and capacities that allow an individual, in community, to deal with constant, traumatic, and transformative change. That’s the basic idea.

What happened at the workshop is that pretty much every word of that definition got questioned. [laughs]

Graphical summary of The Adaptive Mind workshop, Day 3.
Credit: Carlotta Cataldi,

LC: How did that unfold?

SM: So, take the idea of a mind. When you hear “mind,” you think it’s in the head, and it’s focused on the individual. But it’s not just about the mind, right? It’s our whole being. In the trainings that we’re already doing to foster the adaptive mind, we have totally embraced that. But the definition only speaks to the mind, something that is seemingly only “mental,” and so that’s insufficient. We have to somehow find a way to articulate that larger whole.

The second aspect that got questioned was that of an individual. That’s, in many ways, a very Western way of thinking: it’s all about the individual, the hero who comes in to save everybody, or the leader who can navigate through all of these difficulties. Well, the question again and again in the workshop was: can we create a sense and an awareness of and truly live from a place of understanding we’re part of a larger community?

Then there is the notion of an “adaptive” mind. Ron Heifetz from Harvard Business School used the term in the context of adaptive leadership, that comes in when you’re dealing with wicked, complex problems. It is not “Oh, here’s a technical problem, and it has a clear technical solution, and let me just run the numbers and we’re done with it.” Adaptive in his sense — and in the way we used it — was always meant as opposed to simplistic technical solution-finding. But when people hear the word “adaptive,” they think maybe high school biology, this “if you don’t adapt, you die”; the reactive ways in which a species responds to a stimulus of some kind. So, for workshop participants, adaptive felt too reactive. It sounds like we’re only focused on dealing with the downstream symptoms of a problem as opposed to being proactive and preventive and trying to get at the upstream root causes of the problems that we’re having. If you will: why do we have constant, traumatic, and transformative change in the first place? So the word “adaptive” in that way is — at least how people hear it — restrictive, even though we always meant it in a more comprehensive way.

Another critique — and I think this is a reflection of, to some extent, our white privilege, or simply privilege — focused on our neat distinction of constant from traumatic and transformative change. Because for some people, especially people from marginalized groups, who live within a historic context of generations of complex and sustained trauma, trauma is already there; it is constant and has been for a long time. Trauma is also often embedded in or part of a transformation. And in transformation, nothing ever stays constant. It takes a very long time to move fully through a transformation process, and it completely changes systems. So constant, complex, and even chaotic change can be part of transformative change. So those three terms might be nice bins, but they’re too simplistic for the reality of the lived experience of change that people face, and might not account for other characteristics of change, like predictable versus unpredictable change, knowable versus unknowable, or linear versus non-linear change.

What I would say in hindsight is that taking apart an idea in many ways is what one could and should expect of a gathering of 50 brilliant minds who encounter a simplistic definition. They will demand and try to fill it in with more nuance. And I very much appreciate that. I wish I could meet with them like every five weeks or so to continue to work, and build the necessary trust and foundation for collaboration so we get to the point of working out what some of those habits, practices, and skills might be that help people get through difficult change. We made a start, but there is a ways to go to get to a definitive, or at least a good working definition.

We’re trying to equip people to both navigate this difficult world but also to influence it toward healing, toward restoring the conditions for life. That’s profound leadership work.

LC: What are some next steps from the workshop?

SM: I feel that we have created a really interesting forum, and made some great new connections. We had the right people, and there are many others who we could tap to begin to get a deeper understanding of the adaptive mind. I don’t feel we have completely abandoned our definition [of the adaptive mind], nor are we done filling in the long list of skills and capacities. But we’ve gotten some, and we’ve just started looking at all the murky interconnections and complexities of these ideas.

We had an advisory group for this workshop and we met with them again to reflect on the event and to chart out some next-step possibilities.

One thing I would love to see is an ongoing webinar series, sort of an open educational forum where we could learn in-depth from each of these experts and dive more deeply into their ideas and expertise. It would be fabulous for us to learn from that ongoing reflection from different perspectives.

And of course, we’re already delivering adaptive mind trainings. We’ve taken it on the road, if you will. So that will continue and we will continue to refine and learn what people need and how to meet those needs. I dream of scholarship funds for people who might be challenged to afford these trainings, so we can really rediscover, reclaim, and further strengthen these capacities among those who most need them.

You know, we’re trying to grapple with a really difficult world and how we got here. We’re not just trying to pass out bandaids. We’re trying to equip people to both navigate this difficult world but also to influence it toward healing, toward restoring the conditions for life. That’s profound leadership work. And that needs partners, that needs field-building, that needs all kinds of ways to just keep going. During the week of the workshop alone, I had maybe three or four people in my inbox asking, “How can I get involved with this project? I want to learn how to do this, I want to offer it to people.” The demand and the desire to be part of this is growing rapidly. And so for me, the most important step forward is how do we expand it? How do we bring it to people, as we learn how to do this? It’s not like we’ve got it figured out and now it’s just a cookie cutter thing to deliver. It’ll be a learning journey for us, but we also can’t just wait for perfection. It just needs to get out. People are hurting, and they are in need.